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A Counselor’s Guide to Tackling Cognitive Distortions in Teens
As counselors, adopting the 3 C’s of CBT (Catch, Check, Change) offers a structured and effective approach to address cognitive distortions in teenagers. By catching, checking, and changing negative thought patterns, we empower adolescents to navigate their emotions with resilience and embrace a healthier mindset. Together, we can contribute to fostering a positive mental well-being for the teens we support, setting the stage for their success and fulfillment.
What are Cognitive Distortions?
Cognitive distortions are irrational and biased thought patterns that individuals may develop, often contributing to negative emotions and behaviors. These distortions are a key concept in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT aims to identify and challenge these distortions to promote healthier thinking and improve emotional well-being.
Some common cognitive distortions include:
- Black and White Thinking (All-or-Nothing Thinking): Seeing situations in extreme, polarized terms without considering middle-ground possibilities.
- Overgeneralizing: Making broad and sweeping conclusions based on a single event or limited evidence.
- Disqualifying the Positive: Focusing exclusively on the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring any positive elements.
- Mind Reading: Assuming that one knows what others are thinking and that it is negative or critical.
- Fortune Telling: Imagining that one can predict the future and knows the outcome of a situation.
- Magnification or Minimization: Exaggerating or discrediting the significance of an event.
- Emotional Reasoning: Believing that because one feels a certain way, it must be true, without considering alternative perspectives or evidence.
- Should & Must Statements: Establishing rigid and unrealistic rules for oneself or others, leading to feelings of guilt or frustration when these expectations are not met.
- Labeling and Mislabeling: Applying negative labels to oneself or others based on errors or mistakes, rather than considering the broader context.
- Blaming (Personalization): Taking responsibility for events beyond one’s control or blaming oneself for external occurrences.
Teaching students to change these cognitive distortions can improve emotional regulation, reduce stress, enhance problem-solving skills, increase resilience, boost self-esteem, improve relationships, alleviate mood disorders, increase motivation, reduce perfectionism attitudes, and enhance overall quality of life.
There are lots of different ways you can teach students about cognitive distortions. Personally I prefer the 3 C’s of CBT (catch, check, and change) because it’s an easy mnemonic technique for students to remember. Let’s take a few minutes to talk about each of the C’s.
Catch the Thought
The first step in combating cognitive distortions involves recognizing and catching these thoughts when they first appear. By encouraging teens to identify and catch these negative thoughts, we empower them to gain insight into their own mental processes.
Tips for Catching:
- Cognitive Distortions Awareness: Educate them about common cognitive distortions and empower them to recognize these patterns.
- Journaling: Encourage teens to maintain a thought journal, documenting their thoughts and emotions.
- Recognizing Emotional Triggers: Guide them in identifying situations or events that trigger negative thought patterns.
Check the Thought
Once negative thoughts are captured, the next step is to scrutinize their rationality. The checking phase involves guiding them to critically evaluate the evidence supporting or contradicting these thoughts.
Tips for Checking:
- Reality Testing: Encourage students to gather evidence for and against their thoughts. Ask them to consider whether their thoughts align with the facts and reality. This helps them avoid making assumptions that may not be accurate.
- External Perspective: Suggest students seek input from friends, family, or trusted adults. Sometimes, an external perspective can provide valuable insights and offer a more balanced view of a situation.
- Past Experiences: Guide students to reflect on similar situations from the past. Have them consider whether their current thoughts are based on patterns or if there are lessons they can apply from previous experiences.
- Worst-Case Scenario vs. Likelihood: Help students differentiate between a worst-case scenario and the actual likelihood of an event occurring. Often, thoughts can be exaggerated, and this exercise can bring a more realistic perspective.
- Consider Alternative Explanations: Encourage students to explore alternative explanations for their thoughts. Are there other plausible reasons for a situation? This helps them avoid jumping to conclusions and promotes a more open-minded approach.
- Journaling Reflections: Have students use their journals not only to capture their thoughts but also to reflect on them later. Prompt them to revisit their entries and assess whether their initial thoughts still hold true or if there have been changes over time.
- Identify Emotional Biases: Teach students to recognize if their emotions are influencing their thoughts. Emotions can sometimes cloud judgment, so it’s essential for them to understand the connection and strive for a more balanced perspective.
Change the Thought
The ultimate goal of the 3 C’s of CBT is to change their negative thoughts into more helpful and realistic thoughts.
Tips for Changing:
- Compare Scenarios: Encourage students to compare the worst-case scenario, best-case scenario, and most-likely scenario. Realistically looking at the situation can assist students in changing their thoughts.
- Coping Mechanisms: Introduce a range of coping skills such as deep breathing exercises and mindfulness practices. Student may need to practice coping skills prior to changing their thoughts.
- Problem-Solving Strategies: Guide them in breaking down problems into manageable components and developing effective solutions.
- Mindfulness Techniques: Introduce mindfulness exercises to enhance awareness of the present moment.
It’s important to note that catching, checking, and changing cognitive distortions is a process that often requires practice and consistency. Encourage students to continue practicing these skills and overtime they’ll see improvements.
You can easily teach students the 3 C’s of CBT on your own using the tips recommended above. However if you’d like to save yourself some time, then check out my CBT: Change Your Thoughts on TPT that includes 3 detailed lessons/activities, practice worksheets, and a handout defining cognitive distortions.